Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Science Fiction through the Ages


I.O. Evans (editor) Science Fiction through the Ages volume one (1966)
Idrisyn Oliver Evans, to give him his full name, wrote a ton of those Observer's Book of Nuggets style publications for bespectacled boys and undertook the translation of a number of Jules Verne novels - which is interesting because I understand there to be some piss-poor Verne translations out there. I actually fucking hated Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, although it turns out that the version I read had been anglicised by Mercier Lewis, which at least lets Idrisyn - if that was really his name - off the hook on one count.

It's hard to fault the choices made in this prehistory of science-fiction, excerpts from the writings of Plato, Johannes Kepler, Voltaire, Lucian of Samosata, Verne, Mary Shelley, and others. Unfortunately, few of the works quoted really yield satisfying extracts, and I'd suggest that at least Frankenstein and Gulliver's Travels should be read in their entirety. Isolated snippets reveal a nifty turn of phrase but not a whole lot else. Unfortunately the excerpts from things I haven't read aren't generally much better and left me mostly unmoved, and certainly unlikely to wonder any further about Walter Scott's Count Robert of Paris or Robert Paltock's Peter Wilkins. Edgar Allen Poe's The Balloon Hoax is reprinted in full, and I couldn't actually read beyond the first two pages, such was my dislike for how it was written.

On the other hand, I enjoyed the excerpt from what I take to be I.O.'s own translation of Twenty Thousand Leagues a great deal more than the one that I read; and Patrick Moore's account of Johannes Kepler's then untranslated Somnium is reasonably terrific; and the bigger picture afforded of the history of science-fiction as a genre is greatly more thought provoking than at least a few of these individual parts. Brian Aldiss identifies Frankenstein as the first true science-fiction novel, although much of his criteria seems contradictory. Frankenstein, he declares, may be termed science-fiction by virtue of references to technological developments of the day, galvanism and the like, whilst earlier efforts such as those of Swift or Lucian are deemed purely allegorical. This would be fine but for the remainder of Trillion Year Spree greatly favouring the allegorical over the technological - Philip K. Dick rather than Hugo Gernsback - as the truest form of the genre. Evans' book at least proves the futility of drawing such sharply defined lines by showing how the science Aldiss recognises in Frankenstein is only science as seen from a twentieth century perspective, and that it probably isn't fair to dismiss earlier more alchemical forms just for the sake of an argument.

This collection really should have been better given the sources, but then it wasn't so much bad as simply a little on the dry side; and on the other hand, I now really want to read Kepler's Somnium, so that probably counts for something.

Kingsman: The Secret Service


Mark Millar, Matthew Vaughn & Dave Gibbons
Kingsman: The Secret Service (2012)
Here's another one which began life as a comic book and a film adaptation, both at the same time, born from a conversation between Mark Millar and some bloke who was something to do with a couple of X-Men films. I'm not really interested in the film and hadn't even heard of it, but I've got a lot of time for Mark Millar. I know he's perpetrated some utter shite, but when he's good he makes the rest look like wankers.

Of course, if you're not already a fan of Mark Millar, this probably isn't going to be the one to effect your conversion. The violence is gratuitously elabourate, and Miller's delight in broad, pointedly crass brushstrokes executed in the name of uncomfortable chuckles is as much in evidence as it ever was. Beyond that, there's actually a point to this one, if you're interested. It's a spy thriller bordering on farce which transposes a ruffneck Peckam yoot to the champagne and casinos environment of James Bond and the rest; which could have turned out like something from Viz but actually makes some fairly profound observations about class and our expectations. Broadly speaking, The Secret Service is a critique of misanthropy, both the kind demonstrated by the bad guy striving to depopulate the planet for the greater good, and that of a society in which it has somehow become acceptable to demonise working class kids from Peckham as hopeless chavs, amongst other pejoratives. Here we see the working classes as essentially decent - give or take some small change - quick witted and resourceful, which makes a nice change from the usual sneering over Burberry caps and twocked car stereos. I find this particularly refreshing, having actually lived in Peckham - which is where our story begins - and worked with people who may as well be walk on parts herein, aside from the obvious distinction of their having had jobs; so I feel a little protective about the residents of certain bits of south-east London and, against all odds, Mark Millar has somehow managed to avoid getting me all wound up. I'm not convinced that Dave Gibbons was a great choice of artist as his style seems a little clean given the general rhythm of the story, but on the other hand he appears to have done his research to the point that even if certain scenes aren't actually Peckham in the strictest sense, I can immediately recognise where the photographs he obviously used as reference material were taken; which gave me a bit of a warm feeling, and even a craving for a can of Dunn's River Nurishment.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Rogue Ship


A.E. van Vogt Rogue Ship (1965)
Here's one of those fix-up novels van Vogt made by sewing a couple of short stories together. It's a practice you might suspect likely to yield mostly tripe depending on the consistency of themes shared by the component stories, but strangely I've found the most memorable hybrids to be the likes of Quest for the Future or The Beast wherein source material facing in completely different directions has been jammed together and obliged to make friends. Rogue Ship, on the other hand is only just a fix-up, comprising two closely related stories, one a sequel to the other, mixed in with a third, and all rewritten for the sake of elevation to novel status. So you might anticipate something which at least runs along in a straight line, which is what I anticipated, having given up on initial attempts to read The Pawns of Null-A and then Future Glitter because I just wasn't in the mood for that level of non-sequiteurial action.

Glancing at the shelf where they're all lined up from Slan through to Null-A Three, I can't help but form the impression of Alfred Elton having produced Rogue Ship during a brief phase of writing outside his comfort zone. There's The Violent Man, which I haven't read but which I'm told isn't science-fiction; and The Winged Man, seemingly co-written with his wife, Edna Mayne Hull; and Rogue Ship is dedicated to Ford McCormack, described by A.E. as a logician and technical expert and whom he credits as source of nearly all of what is scientifically exact in this fantastic story. Weird though it may seem, I think this was our boy having a go at hard science-fiction vaguely in the spirit of Asimov and the like. It's set on a generation ship travelling to a distant star system, just like in serious science-fiction, and there's an awful lot of talk of different kinds of proton and the laws of physics during the first third of the book.

A.E. van Vogt can usually be identified by random narrative swerves, dreamlike atmosphere, and impossible occurrences introduced for no immediately obvious reason, but he keeps it more or less under control for most of this one, which is in itself at least as odd as the bursts of explosive surrealism for which he is usually known. The first third of the book, peculiarly sober though it is, is actually quite absorbing as our ship arrives at its destination, many decades after leaving Earth, and fails to find anything habitable. Unfortunately this development inspires a series of mutinies, presumably as we encounter material from the second component story, and the narrative becomes convoluted and difficult to follow. By the time my attention span began to reconnect, it's clear that A.E. just couldn't keep a straight face after all and the ship is back on Earth, its crew frozen like statues, which is because they aren't back on Earth but are now travelling many times faster than the speed of light, and this is one of the weirder side effects; so as a novel, although it's not going to knock any of his biggies off the top spot, it finds its second wind and resumes something resembling pace towards the end.

The power struggles of the central passage may say something or other about government or society as a whole, although I found it difficult to tell what; and van Vogt's weird attitude to women comes to the fore in a couple of places. Here the ship's captain gets as many as four wives, women who seem content to be bartered as trophies as different factions seize power on board the Hope of Man. I have a feeling this may be one of those things which may have made evolutionary sense in the pre-Christian middle east, and thus is proposed as workable in outer space for the same reasons. The author himself doesn't seem to approve of his polygamous characters, but he's nevertheless the one moving those conveniently compliant gals from one bed to another like chess pieces.

On the other hand...

The universe was not a lie. It was what it was. There had been an apparency perceived by the highly evolved nervous systems of man and animals. Evidently—it was postulated—life had required a unique stability and had therefore created brain mechanisms that limited perception to the apparent stable condition. Within this solid frame, life lived its lulled existence, evolving painfully, constantly adjusting at some unconscious level to the real universe.

Rogue Ship goes deep in places, but tends to muddy its own arguments - whatever they may be - with the relentless constant motion which van Vogt tended to write, and which otherwise often works so well. It's not an amazing book, but it's mostly decent, and there's probably a lot more to be had from it than I managed if you have the patience.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Inside the Flying Saucers


George Adamski Inside the Flying Saucers (1955)
This seems to be one of those print on demand reprints undertaken because somebody or other noticed that the copyright had expired, leaving the book in the public domain. The somebody or other would presumably be the IlluminNet Press - as they are identified in the first few pages of this edition - which sounds promising, obviously.

While I can appreciate the fact of people undertaking this sort of reprint, particularly because it keeps a work in circulation and means I don't have to pay a fucking fortune for an old battered copy which, in any case, may turn out to be a pile of unreadable crap; it would be really nice if they bothered to proofread what came out of the other end of their shitty optical character recognition software; because it's tiresome reading a body of text which routinely converts a word such as he to lie, and such errors suggest that the publisher is either stupid or couldn't give a shit. Proofing a body of text is not that difficult.

Anyway, as to whether it was worth reprinting…

George Adamski was arguably the first person to claim abduction by aliens in modern times, although his own close encounters didn't seem to involve any element of coercion, rather taking the form of a series of highly informative rides in flying saucers piloted by talkative beings from Venus very much resembling humans. I personally tend towards scepticism with this sort of thing for reasons which should be frankly fucking obvious, and yet I often find this kind of narrative intriguing. It may well be nothing more than horseshit, but there's always the possibility that some of it may be true, or that it may have been experienced by the author as truth; and that's what keeps me reading. Unfortunately in this instance, the case for the defence somewhat shoots itself in the foot in the first paragraph of Charlotte Blodget's introduction referring to those who have been trained to reject everything not yet proven in the familiar three dimensions.

That's right, Charlotte, the only reason I reject all that comical hogwash clogging up the Metaphysics section of the book store is because that's how I've been trained, you fucking clown. You might have helped your cause some if the very first line wasn't the usual overly defensive protestation about supposedly closed minds delivered with all the conviction of Jimmy Savile reassuring us that Uncle Jim only says he hates children as preventative to certain  accusations.

I gather Charlotte Blodget was the ghostwriter who convinced simple, plain-speaking, unassuming farm hand George Adamski that the world needed to hear his story, to which we now turn our attention.

Adamski had already described his first meeting with Orthon of Venus in Flying Saucers have Landed, co-written with Desmond Leslie, and this book describes what happened next. What happened next was more of the same, usually beginning with a peculiar premonition inspiring Adamski to drive to Los Angeles and book into a certain hotel, generally to find his alien friends waiting for him in the lobby - these being alien friends of the kind who can pass as human. Having met, he often accompanied them to a parked saucer in some isolated spot outside the city, then off into space for lengthy conversations in which the aliens point at different parts of the saucer and explain how they work, much like the wizard who rules the magical sky kingdom in a Rupert Bear annual. That said, it isn't all gravity controls and natural faster than light power systems, and a lot of time is spent yacking about the utopian societies of other planets, and how there is air on the moon with people living there - a claim I am unfortunately unable to take seriously due to my training. Inevitably much of the point of this seems to be that the people of Earth really need to stop acting like wankers, and maybe, you know, mellow out a bit; which is fair enough.

Regardless of what he's actually describing, Adamski's testimony is surprisingly compelling, even convincing, so Inside the Flying Saucers can, for the most part, be read with the idea that he seems to have experienced something, even at the most ludicrous instances of distended credibility such as the casino on the Saturnian mother ship. In fact, the peculiarly religious tone creeping in half way through the book - acknowledging a supreme creator and Jesus Christ as having been an earlier messenger from above - is sort of intriguing with its parallels to the Book of Enoch and allegedly historical religious encounters.

So it's a decent read, roughly speaking, at least up until the last couple of pages. Charlotte Blodget somewhat re-blows it all in her final summation with a short biography of simple, plain-speaking, unassuming farm hand George Adamski, revealing how he actually spent most of his adult life as a sort of low-level cult leader, a home-schooled mystic, self-proclaimed new age guru, and exactly the sort of person who would stand to gain from the fabrication of this kind of tale; which is disappointing, and somewhat sucks the fun out of the preceding hundred or so pages.

Of course, that's only what I've been trained to say.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Captain Britain


Alan Moore & Alan Davis Captain Britain (1984)
I didn't even realise this had been collected until I saw it tucked away on a shelf, and I hadn't considered that it even would have been collected due to Alan Moore's habit of wishing cancer and AIDS unto ten generations upon those who doth reprint the stuff he wrote before he became an actual wizard and acquired all sorts of dark and mysterious powers by which he might smite his enemies; in fact he even wrote an introduction to this 2001 collection, words amounting to gosh, I'd forgotten about this old thing. What larks!

I'd actually read most of this, I think, at one point or another, but I can't remember where so it's nevertheless nice to have it back. Captain Britain, as we all know, was Marvel's attempt to infiltrate the land of fog, mist and Bash Street Kids on something approximating its own terms, because Chris Claremont had been on holiday to Englishland when he was a kid or summink. Then Alan Moore took it over and tried to make it more interesting. I can't be arsed to check the chronology, but if this predates the stuff he wrote for Warrior, then it can't have been by much, because you can really tell that he's learning on the job for the first couple of instalments with half a ton of florid and quite unnecessary wordage crammed into each panel. It reads as though it lacks confidence, but even stranger is that the art of Alan Davis seems to be similarly in the process of finding its feet. In fact, such are the first couple of episodes that they feel strangely like a continuation of The Stars My Degradation from Sounds but without the knob gags.

Needless to say, Captain Britain isn't the greatest work by any of those involved, but it's decent, imaginative, a lot of fun, and curiously prescient of what was to come in certain respects.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Slapstick


Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Slapstick (1976)
I reached saturation point with Vonnegut a few books ago, and with three or four still to be read due to my having stumbled across cheap copies back before he'd begun to get on my tits. Happily, my disillusionment turns out to have been a mirage formed by the chance reading of a couple of his more disappointing works in a row; which I realise now because, against expectation, Slapstick is fucking great and has reminded me of everything I liked about the guy in the first place. Naturally it does all the things you would expect of a Vonnegut novel, but does them at least as well as did Slaughterhouse Five, making it easier to forgive Galápagos and others which seemed to get lost in their own labyrinthine jokes to no immediately obvious end.

Slapstick keeps it simple, at least telling its story in a straight line, despite the narrative voice being that of the president of the United States inhabiting some sort of post-catastrophe world with a substantially reduced population, and specifically inhabiting the Empire State building. He's also two metres tall with Neanderthal features, six fingers to a hand, four nipples, and is brother to an identical female twin with whom he once shared a telepathic partnership. They were assumed to be retarded at birth and thus left to their own devices in an abandoned family mansion. Tended only by servants who dressed and fed them, the twins effectively raised themselves. Our man learned to read and was fluent in five or six languages by the age of four, whilst his illiterate sister was gifted with imagination and the ability to wring rich philosophical sense from their shared thoughts, and in doing so to solve all of the problems of the world; and sensing they would be regarded as freakish, the siblings kept their intelligence to themselves, putting on a drooling and gibbering act for the benefit of staff, and during rare, vaguely dutiful visits from parents.

I couldn't actually tell what any of it was about, at least not beyond it being a satire upon the usual institutions and conventions found in Vonnegut's line of fire; but the author introduces the book like so:

This is the closest I will ever come to writing an autobiography. I have called it Slapstick because it is grotesque, situational poetry—like the slapstick film comedies, especially those of Laurel and Hardy, of long ago.

It is about what life feels like to me.

Which is probably as much as you need to know for any of it to work; and work it does, regardless of how lurid the caricature becomes, maintaining the well-intentioned but ultimately doomed dignity of Stan and Ollie right up to the last page.

Monday, 25 September 2017

JLA: The Tenth Circle


Chris Claremont & John Byrne JLA: The Tenth Circle (2004)
As I said back in August, I've been catching up with neglected incarnations of the Doom Patrol, and this is where the John Byrne version was born, immediately prior to a couple of years appearing in their own title. I had a feeling I wasn't going to like this much, and a few online reviews suggested it all seemed a bit childish, as though written for kids. Happily I was wrong on the first count, and as for the second one, well - seeing as how this is a Justice League of America comic book in which Superman has a scrap with a vampire, what the fuck did you expect?

Okay. I had other reservations too, notably how John Byrne has always had a thing for what I seem to remember him calling big stick heroes, so in other words, big, colourful, and sunny just like when I were a lad. Like Teddy Roosevelt, they carry a big allegorical stick with which they duff up the bad guys, and they probably won't have much in the way of dark secrets. There's nothing inherently wrong with such ideas, but in context of Doom Patrol, the essence of Byrne's revival seems oddly Republican in its apparent revision of established continuity, starting again from the beginning so that we no longer have to think about all that weird Morrison stuff with men wearing dresses and drugs and all manner of related beastliness. That said, I haven't actually read Byrne's run on Doom Patrol as yet, so I'll have to suspend judgement a little longer.

On the other hand, I've always enjoyed John Byrne's work. It's easy on the eye, and there's something pleasantly chunky and tidy about his art. It's traditional and clean, almost classical in comic book terms; and yet in apparent contrast to such unashamedly mainstream appeal, he's always been quite good at weird, notably in West Coast Avengers and those early issues of Alpha Flight.

Anyway, here we have a vampire called Crucifer who bites Superman, thus placing him under some kind of hypnotic thrall. He's a vampire very much in the traditional sense, as seen in Murnau's Nosferatu, and he wants to bring all the other vampires back from the  tenth circle of Hell, to which they've been banished by Wonder Woman's people. Luckily the Justice League of America are on the case, as is some mysterious new group of slightly odd supertypes led by a dude in a wheelchair. So, yes, it almost certainly was written for kids, which I nevertheless found a pleasure, and I'm in my fifties.

It's been a while since I read anything by Chris Claremont, and the dialogue is very obviously his, with sentences broken up and splattered all around the frame in strings of speech balloons, pensive dialogue boxes, and unapologetic use of thought bubbles; because in case any of us should have forgotten, this is a comic book, not Crime & Punishment. I'd grown weary of Claremont's dialogue by the end of his run on the X-Men back in the nineties, always trying too hard and coming across like the idea of teenagers seen in a late eighties Rod Stewart video, but it could just be that he was overworked. In any case, whilst this may not strive for the sophistication of one of those grown-up comic books by Garth Guinness, Claremont writes a beautifully smooth read, pulling you right into the story from the first page and keeping your attention firmly pinned in place. There's nothing particularly profound in this collection, except that it's beautifully rendered, rounded, and very, very satisfying. It never needed to do anything more than it already does.